BAGHDAD — Iraq’s parliament on Tuesday broke two weeks of political deadlock to elect a speaker, a crucial first step toward forming a new government that Iraqi leaders hope will pull this divided country out of crisis.
Sunni lawmaker Salim al-
Jubouri received 71 percent of the votes. The session, broadcast live on state television, was attended by 273 of the Iraqi parliament’s 328 members, acting speaker Mahdi Hafidh said.
The election of a new speaker appeared to bring Iraq one step closer to forming a government led by someone other than Nouri al-Maliki, the controversial prime minister.
Widespread opposition to Maliki, a Shiite Arab, among Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities, as well as some Shiite lawmakers, has been the main reason for the deadlock.
“There is no chance for Maliki,” Jawad al-Jubouri, a spokesman for the Shiite al-Ahrar party, said Tuesday night. “All of the political blocs and the [Shiite] religious authority are telling him to leave.”
But it remains unclear whether Maliki, who has ruled Iraq for eight years and whose State of Law party controls the largest bloc in parliament, will step down.
In practice, Iraq’s government consists of a Sunni speaker of parliament, a Kurdish president and a Shiite prime minister, to balance the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.
The speaker is chosen first. But in the past, political parties have agreed on all three as part of a package deal ahead of a formal vote.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Tuesday urged Iraqi politicians to move quickly to complete the process of forming a new government, saying that “the stakes for Iraq’s future could not be clearer.”
“The election of a Speaker is the first step in the critical process of forming a new government that can take into account the rights, aspirations, and legitimate concerns of all Iraq’s communities,” he said in a statement.
Confidence in Maliki has deteriorated rapidly over the past month, as Sunni militants calling themselves the Islamic State have routed Iraqi forces and captured territory stretching from Syria to within 50 miles of Baghdad in central Iraq.
Nevertheless, Maliki might retain his post, said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Far from signaling a behind-the-scenes agreement on a new government, Tuesday’s vote showed only that both pro- and anti-Maliki camps see the selection of a speaker as a way to push their agendas forward, Mardini said from Irbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
“Those against Maliki believe that starting the clock will lead to his ousting, and those supporting Maliki believe it will lead to his third term,” Mardini said. “As a result, both sides came out to elect a new speaker.”
Critics have accused Maliki of systematically marginalizing and discriminating against the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, deepening a set of toxic rifts and bringing the country to the verge of a sectarian war reminiscent of the 2006-2007 bloodletting.
Among the Shiite contenders for Maliki’s job is Ahmed Chalabi, who helped bring about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 by providing false intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
As an administrator tallied the votes in parliament Tuesday, lawmakers, including Chalabi, approached Jubouri to congratulate him on his landslide win.
In recent weeks, Iraq has come dangerously close to breaking apart. The Kurds have seized oil fields and the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk, while vowing to push for statehood.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, has declared a revival of the medieval Islamic caliphate on territory it has captured in recent weeks.
And Iraqi security forces have all but collapsed under the militant onslaught.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces launched another offensive to recapture the insurgent stronghold of Tikrit, the home town of Hussein. The Islamic State seized control of the city on June 12. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, aided by Shiite militias and volunteer fighters, has since struggled to retake it.
Mohamed al-Tikriti, a local journalist, said security forces began shelling the southern half of the city about 1 a.m. Tuesday and continued into the late hours of the morning.
“Today was the hardest battle we have seen yet,” Tikriti said. Those residents who had not fled were staying indoors, he said.
“There is no electricity. There is no fuel. There are shortages of everything,” he added.
Tikriti and Iraqi officials said security forces also were fighting for control of the city’s main hospital, which lies on strategically high ground.
Government security officials say they suspect that the Islamist State has sleeper cells in Baghdad, but it has yet to launch a major assault on the city.
On Tuesday, two car bombs shook a Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding 15, said Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
Maan said the military also conducted air raids on the militant-held cities of Fallujah and Haditha, west of the capital.
Anne Gearan in Washington and Khalid Ali in Baghdad contributed to this report.